Thousands fled India-controlled Kashmir. Are they better off in Pakistan?

Some 35,000 Kashmiris fled from Indian-controlled Kashmir during the 1990s to settle in Pakistan, a country that has not yet granted citizenship to up to 40 percent of the migrants.

By , Correspondent

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    A Kashmiri baker stands in his closed shop during a curfew in Srinagar, India, Oct. 12. The Muslim majority Kashmir region is divided between mainly Hindu India and mainly Muslim Pakistan and claimed by both countries in its entirety. Some 35,000 Kashmiris fled from India-controlled Kashmir during the 1990s to settle in Pakistan, according to government estimates.
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While an insurgency raged against Indian authorities in the early 1990s, thousands of young men, including Rana Altaf’s father and uncle, were arrested by authorities, beaten, and tortured. Fearing for their lives, they eventually crossed the line of control that separates Indian-controlled Kashmir from the Pakistani side. They trekked on foot for three days over treacherous snowy terrain in a group of 60 people from neighboring families, avoiding Indian landmines.

“We knew if we turned back we faced certain death. They would have shot us,” recalls Rana’s father, Abdul Rasheed. Rasheed says he was arrested three times and interrogated by a man he remembers as “Major Sharma” who threatened to have him killed if he did not give up the names of militants hiding in his village. Rasheed insists he had nothing to do with the armed struggle in which an estimated 84,000 civilians lost their lives.

Seventeen years later, like many who made similar treks, the family lives in a make-shift shanty on the outskirts of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan administered Kashmir. Though they count themselves lucky to be alive, the family’s dream of a welcoming Pakistan was short lived.

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“We’re grateful to Pakistan but we’re always made to feel different. The people here don’t like us, don’t mix with us, and it’s hard to get a job,” says Rana who has not yet received Pakistani citizenship or an ID card, and is therefore not entitled to attend college or legally seek employment. Rana’s mother, Sobia, complains that the family struggles for food each month as the men find informal work only occasionally.

A better option?

Some 35,000 Kashmiris fled from India-controlled Kashmir during the 1990s to settle in Pakistan, according to government estimates. They traveled difficult terrain and long distances to a country that claimed to speak for the beleaguered Kashmiri people. Years later, however, it has not yet granted citizenship to up to 40 percent of the migrants, mostly from the second or third generations. Most migrants live in camps and subsist on government handouts of about $8 a month per person.

“These are a group of people who bring into focus a humanitarian factor of the whole Kashmir dispute. The fact that these people have been living for 20 years in camps remains virtually unknown,” says Marjan Lucas, a Senior Program Officer at Dutch nongovernmental organization IKV Pax Christi who has been campaigning on behalf of the migrants.

Ms. Lucas suggests the government has been slow in awarding citizenship rights to the migrants because to do so would mean negating their right to self-determination. The Pakistan government continues to insist the 1948 United Nations Security Council Resolution calling for self-determination is the only acceptable mechanism through which to solve the Kashmir dispute with India.

“They were invited and told to stay until the dispute was resolved. When they came they were welcomed but it was expected that their stay would be temporary so Pakistan said ‘We don’t have to give you ID cards because you have the right to self-determination.' " This situation continued and continued and they’re still in the same situation they were in when they arrived, and now the third and fourth generations have been born within the camps.”

'We want to go back home, but only after the Indian Army has left'

At Rana’s residence, a make-shift shanty home with a corrugated iron roof, on the outskirts of Muzaffarabad city, three families crowd into two rooms and subsist on government welfare checks of $17 per person per month. Not one of the family possess a Pakistani ID card– including Rana and his younger brother Mushtaq, who was born in Muzafarrabad.

“We left our lands, our properties, our animals and businesses to come here,” says Abdul, the family head. “We want to go back home, but only after the Indian Army has left. What business do they have in Kashmir?” he asks.

Few can afford to visit or contact relatives back home

Only 1 percent of the total population of Kashmir claims to have been able to visit friends of relatives on the other side in the last five years, according to a recent poll by the Chatham House think tank in London.

Having left behind their possessions, almost none of the migrants have been able to return to meet loved-ones, and some have not even been able to afford to make telephone contact. The much-touted bus service between the two Kashmirs, launched as part of peace efforts between India and Pakistan in 2005, is “just for show” they say, as bureaucratic hurdles make travel impossible for the common man.

A people without a home, 'it's like we don't exist'

At the Manak Piyan camp at Muzaffarabad, home to some 2,000 migrants, a school teacher who asked not to be named because of his past membership in a militant group supported by Pakistani intelligence, says: “Nobody wants to take responsibility for us, it’s like we don’t exist." Before fleeing India, the teacher studied at the Srinagar SP college.

He finally got his ID card seven years ago, after a long struggle with red tape. Some members of the community petitioned the High Court in 2005 for citizenship rights, but the court’s ruling extended only as far as a few dozen individual cases. Other migrants were granted citizenship in 2006 in the run-up to the Azad Jammu Kashmir state elections, in what some felt was a cynical ploy by politicians to garner votes.

Mir Abdul Rasheed Abbasi, a member of the AJK parliament, acknowledged delays in granting citizenship to the migrants but said that poor record keeping and fraudulent petitions for benefits are partly responsible.

The school teacher and other migrants here say they once fought India as members of the Inter Services Intelligence backed Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. He says he was taken to Khost in Afghanistan for training under the command of pro-Pakistan Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He walks with a prosthetic left leg after hitting a landmine during one of his sorties with militants back into Indian administered Kashmir.

Not your average jihadi

But he is not a run-of-the-mill jihadi: He is a staunch supporter of women’s right to education and work. He also says he is especially grateful for the work of Christian charities in the region and simply wants the world to recognize his struggle. “Our right to fight the occupying forces is guaranteed under the United Nations Charter,” he says, adding: “We want to go back home but we are hostages to our situation. Though we respect the people of AJK, their government does not favor us.”

Many within the camps still hold out hope for an independent Kashmir, and view armed struggle as necessary. Some find they do not fit in Pakistan because of cultural and linguistic differences – migrants speak the Kashmiri language whereas many of the locals speak a dialect of Punjabi. Some migrants are too proud to accept a Pakistani ID, says Lucas of Pax Christi. The community itself is not classed as "refugee camp" by the UNHCR.

For these reasons, Lucas says that her organization, along with Pakistan's Mass Welfare Foundation, hopes to “stimulate the debate amongst the migrants (about) what future they want for themselves.”

Similarities can be drawn between the plight of the Kashmiri migrants in AJK to the struggle of the "Kashmiri Pandits" – Kashmiri Hindus of Brahmin heritage, who were driven out of Indian administered Kashmir en masse during the uprising in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Up to 400,000 Kashmiri Pandits are believed to be displaced.

“Groups like these tend to become exploited for propaganda purposes. The Indian establishment chose to use the Pandits as proof of the racist oppression of Muslim Kashmiris, to put them forward and say ‘these are the victims of Islamic terrorism,’ ” says Lucas.

“Pakistan has so far not exploited the Kashmiri migrants in a similar way, and this is very commendable,” she says. “But that might also be to avoid drawing attention to the conditions in which they are living in the camps.”

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